Five Things You Should Do to Be a Great UX Designer

This is in response to UX amateurism and why I’m not a UX designer anymore. Being a UX Designer isn’t hard, but we forget to some of the low hanging fruit that is invaluable to our role.

Anyone can wireframe.

When my friends ask about building their own ideas, I encourage them to start sketching. My friends love doing it, because it’s taking something in their head and making it real.

Because. Anyone. Can. Wireframe.

However, that doesn’t make them a User Experience Designer.

What does make them a User Experience Designer is when they get feedback. They test the ideas with friends. They do research. They iterate.

Real User Experience Designers understand wireframes and sketches are only one part of the process. They result from research needed to design a product. Research may make it into Powerpoints to be communicated to product and engineering teams, rough notes during usability tests may be taken on paper prototypes, and screencasts might be recorded during remote usability testing. Each of these are as equally important as a wireframe.

If you’re following some kind of constant improvement process to make your product better, you are a User Experience Designer.

There is no one true process for User Experience, just a framework. That framework is the intersection people, business and technology, and our job is to understand all three so they work in harmony.

Communicate Without Using A Mouse

Designers should own the experience, but they also should realize they are creating the experience in collaboration with the users who have to use it.

I’ve watched a lot of User Experience Designers break out their tools and go straight to wireframes. Then they save them as a PDF, send them to the client, and wonder, “Why can’t the clients understand the wireframes?”

One simple statement — it’s about context. Wireframes are only one communication tool that User Experience Designers have in their toolbox. More important is the ability to give context and talk through solutions with the clients and engineers.

Even better tools are paper and pencil, or whiteboards. Both of them are amazing because the designer can iterate and communicate with the users and stakeholders in a way that’s very collaborative and effective. I love whiteboards because we can sketch, erase and sketch again quickly while walking through the idea. Jonathan Korman calls it the “five step test”: can they take the five steps to the whiteboard.

Designers should own the experience, but they also should realize they are creating the experience in collaboration with the users who have to use it.

Hit The Road

There’s always time for user research, because wireframes should be so little of your time.

Have you visited your customers? Have you performed a focus group? Have you watched them in action? Are you designing just for yourself?

Most User Experience Designers work on products that we would never want or have to buy. I will probably never write a check for Jobvite, yet I’m responsible for designing an Applicant Tracking System for many companies I won’t ever work for. That means I’m going to spend a lot of time talking to recruiters, the primary users of our system.

Seldom are you the target audience for the product you are designing. So why do most designers jump straight into wireframes?

There’s always time for user research, because wireframes should be so little of your time. You should make it a point even before sketching to schedule at least 5 calls with customers and discuss their needs. If you can, schedule two in person visits of at least two hours to watch them use the products that are related.

You have to understand the needs of your users in the context of their environment — only then can you design the product. I hate hearing the most is the words, “I think.” What it really should be is, “If I were this target user, this is how I think the process would go for using this.”

Show Early and Often

Testing your assumptions is the most important thing you could do as a User Experience Designer.

Do you print out your wireframes and throw them on the wall? Do you schedule usability tests? Do you ask people at work, “How would you use this?” Do you use any kind of prototype to get results? Have you ever used a half done prototype to test?

Testing your assumptions is the most important thing you could do as a User Experience Designer. Again, it’s back to “I think,” the two most dangerous and overused words in the English language. You aren’t paid to design something for yourself, you’re paid to design for the users of the system, and as a by product be tremendously profitable for your organization.

Usability testing ain’t rocket surgery. Ask someone you work with, “Do you have a few minutes to go over something I’m working on?” Most people love to do this, because they feel like they are part of the process. For B2B applications, the end users will volunteer without compensation their own time because it will make their life easier.

Carl Nelson, a designer I saw present, said the easiest tests were done at coffee shops in San Francisco. Leave a few donuts out, ask people to come over and ask a few questions. The feedback you’ll get we’ll be priceless.

Makin’ It A Habit

User Experience Designers more so than anyone else should have a stake in how a product gets designed and developed.

How are you going to design the product? How are you performing research? Do you have a step by step process you can put on the wall that talks about what you do? Are you using a project management tool like Basecamp or Asana to track where you are at?

User Experience Designers more so than anyone else should have a stake in how a product gets designed and developed. It’s up to them to be involved organically in establishing the process within an organization by building support with product managers, engineers and customer support. When a process is in place is when a User Experience Designer can relax.

I explain it simply as User Interviews, Personas, User Stories, Wireframes, Mockups, and the launch of an iteration. Repeat the last three to iterate. This process makes a great story where you can talk about previous successes and how you can apply it to your current situation.

When I talk with other designers about how I implement it, I just do. End of story. The process becomes just part of my day job, another tool I use to create great products. If there’s always time to wireframe, there’s always time to perform research.

Even great writers just don’t sit down and type: they have a story arc as a framework. User Experience Designers should have the same because their job is to turn the UX process into a story they can tell anyone involved in it.

Learn The Only Constant is Change

You should think this about every day as a User Experience Designer: how can I improve what I’m doing in my current environment to make the product and process better.

Do you just launch a product and hope it works? Do you ever have a chance to change it? Is it ever done?

One of the designers I know, Jon Fox, asked a curious question the other day: “When do you consider a product done?”

In my mind, a product is never fully complete.

And not only is it about the product itself. Iteration is also about the process. It’s hard for many User Experience Designers to build in iteration because are a lot of projects are fixed, but their great clients and great companies understand the only constant is change, and change can totally be for the better.

The Japanese language has a term for it called Kaizen, the continuous improvement of processes. When you’re building a product, you are looking to improve the process of improving the product just as much as you are trying to improve the product yourself. The most important point to the Kaizen philosophy is self improvement: it is up to ourselves to improve our process.

Scrum borrows from this with retrospectives, which is a look back at what went well (and not so well) with your last release, and what we should improve going forward. User Experience Designers should do retrospectives themselves so they can improve their processes.

You should think this about every day as a User Experience Designer: how can I improve what I’m doing in my current environment to make the product and process better.

Build in time to make changes, make tweets and test your ideas. Get feedback. Put it in the next release. Research. Design. Build. Evaluate. Repeat. That’s what makes a great User Experience Designer.